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Weston’s Super Mare? – Episode 28: JPT semi-final first leg…

We are really struggling up front, so on the first day of 2014 I charged through the newly opened transfer window and dragged Robert Hall kicking and screaming back to the Woodspring. We acquired Hall from West Ham United and I am looking forward to seeing how good he can be for us. One disappointment is that, having played for Brentford in the JPT, he won’t be able to help us in that competition, but overall he is a great acquisition.

Let’s see how dangerous he can be! First for us in 2014 is an away trip to Big Cherno Samba’s AFC Wimbledon side.

Matchday 31 – League Two – AFC Wimbledon v Weston-super-Mare

Wimbledon have been having a poor season and find themselves struggling and without a win in five. We aren’t exactly on a hot streak and haven’t won in our past three, but I have a bit of confidence that, with Hall on board, we might be able to come out on top.

Cue the inevitable 2-0 defeat. We were poor. Hall didn’t seem to be match fit, having not played for three weeks, and the rest of the side weren’t much better. In fairness to the boys, they were holding their own for much of the game and it was only two late goals from Luke Moore and Max Power that saw us defeated. That said, the Wombles had a much larger number of shots than us and anything other than a home win would have been a travesty. Not exactly the start to the year that I had hoped for…

Luckily we didn’t have to wait long to get a chance of redemption, as we made the short trip across Gloucester to take on Cheltenham Town at their Whaddon Road stadium. Given the close proximity of the two clubs, there was a big crowd expected and it would be an intense atmosphere.

The best news that I could have possibly hoped for landed on my desk a few days before the game. Our first choice keeper, Pedro Guedes, was back from injury and would be available to play against the Robins. This was just the boost the team needed.

Matchday 32 – League Two – Cheltenham Town v Weston-super-Mare

That boost to our confidence was entirely needed if we planned to get anything from the game. Cheltenham were flying high in the league and were massively overachieving this season. That said, they were in a patch of dodgy form, but given our own form and our previous game, this hardly counted for anything.

Things started off badly for Cheltenham as Rhys Bennett was sent off after just three minutes for a crunching challenge to bring down Rob Hall who was through on goal. The tackle itself would have been enough for the ref to show a red card, but, given that he was the last man as well, Bennett had no complaints as he trudged back to the changing rooms. This did not have the effect that I wanted though. We seemed to relax a little bit too much and didn’t apply as much pressure as I would have wanted, culminating in Andy Welsh putting the Robins ahead midway through the first half.

We continued to look sloppy until half time and I had a few choice words to say in the changing room. I don’t usually go in too hard when we are away from home and against teams that are favourites to beat us, but today I did. It was simply not good enough to be putting in such a performance when the other team had been reduced to ten men within seconds of the start of the game. I sent the lads out onto the pitch complete with the understanding that they would be giving me something else in the second half, or else.

Luckily, my message seemed to get through to them. We were slowly getting to the level that I expect and started making some good chances and pinning Cheltenham back into their own half. The trouble was, we didn’t look much like scoring. Rob Hall was still adapting to our style of play and had been ineffective, so I dragged him off and put on Gavin Massey. Massey obviously had something to prove after he was dropped for the new guy, and by gum did he prove it. We immediately looked more threatening and tested their keeper a few times before we finally, finally made the breakthrough in the 80th minute. Massey grabbed the goal, a calmly taken finish to slot the ball under the Cheltenham keeper. Now, suddenly, momentum was fully in our favour and we were doing all the running in the game. It looked like we would score, but we had so little time left…

In the end, we had just about enough time to grab a winner, as Massey grabbed his second of the game with a fantastic finish coming after an excellent run that took him past two or three reeling Cheltenham players.

What is most frustrating about this season is that we have this kind of performance in us, but we do not play that way often enough and that is why we are where we are in the league. If we can sort consistency out, we will start climbing the table.

To try and help us on that quest, I again plundered West Ham United’s reserve side to bring in George Moncur, a central midfielder who can add some steel and could chip in with some long range goals as well, given the opportunity. Also, importantly, he is not cup-tied in the JPT so he can help us out in that competition too.

Joining Moncur was Joao Carlos, a loanee from Liverpool and another option to give us something solid and creative in the midfield. Carlos may be Portuguese and not English, but he has received his training in the UK and therefore counts towards the squad quotas that I mentioned a few episodes ago.

Our final addition in January was the left winger from Watford, Matty Whichelow. Whichelow will provide cover for Norwegian Mo and Scott Brown on the left as they are both consistently tired and/or injured. Hopefully, he will offer us some creativity and lay on some goals through his work on the left.

We then had some interesting news come through from the authorities. Our first leg JPT semi-final tie against Bournemouth would be televised, giving us some extra money (slightly more than the last time we were on TV, at any rate). This was a good thing.

Matchday 33 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Plymouth Argyle

Now we finally got the chance to play our rearranged match with Plymouth Argyle. In the time since our last game was postponed, they have really picked things up and are no longer bottom after four wins in their last five.

Luckily, our atrocious pitch got a good soaking from the January weather and meant we avoided what would definitely have been a far trickier fixture this time round. Maybe we will never have to play it at all..? Fingers crossed.

Matchday 33.5 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Southend United

Ok, so instead of a resurgent Plymouth, we instead had more time to prepare for a game against a desperately out of form Southend United side that had replaced the Pilgrims at the bottom of the league. They were in pitiful form and we had our eyes set on a win to continue our recent slight upturn in form.

So, obviously, we lost. And we lost bad. We were dreadful again when it came to finishing and neither Massey – starting thanks to his previous good display – nor Steven Howarth or substitute Rob Hall could conjure up anything more than half chances and poor attempts.

Southend, on the other hand, looked excellent and tore us apart, showing us a masterclass in finishing that was, frankly, embarrassing. We were their equals in almost all departments and even created  more chances than them overall, but we didn’t deserve anything from the game.

This striking problem is really starting to annoy me and, given we are about to take on a League One side in a cup semi-final, this is isn’t exactly the perfect time for a striking crisis…

Hopefully, we could put on a good show for the nearly 7000 people who had given their time and money up to watch us and for our travelling fans who made the journey down to Dean Court for the first leg.

Matchday 34 – Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – AFC Bournemouth v Weston-super-Mare

Luckily for us, Bournemouth were also a side that was suffering from poor form in front of goal. Plus, their form in the past few weeks had been almost as dire as ours, so there was some hope at least. My hope was that we could try and come away with a draw from this game and then try and beat them back at our place in a couple of weeks’ time.

Well, we probably don’t need to worry too much about the second leg, as we have one and a half feet firmly in the final after that performance. The game started out cagey as both sides did their best to adapt to the loud and intense atmosphere inside the ground. Bournemouth’s players seemed nervous, whilst ours looked excited. This showed as we took a shock lead in the 33rd minute, Steven Howarth slipping the ball underneath the Bournemouth keeper after being put clean through by a fantastic Gavin Massey pass.

The little section of our fans in the ground went wild and they were creating a load of noise, completely drowning out the Bournemouth fans who were stunned into silence. Things were soon to get worse for the home faithful, however, as Gavin Massey emphatically smashed the ball into the back of the net following a corner to double our lead.

Half time was a good time to be involved with Weston-super-Mare, but I was determined to keep a check on the lads’ emotions. I emphasised that we were still just a quarter of the way through the whole fixture and that we were definitely not through to the final yet.

This was the right thing to do, as the lads seemed focussed as they retook the field. We were keeping Bournemouth absolutely silent and our fans were doing the same with the fans. It was no surprise, then, when we grabbed a third just nine minutes into the second half. A Bournemouth defender tripped Captain Barbosa in the box and the referee pointed to the spot almost instantly. Up stepped Hjortur Hermannsson, our regular penalty taker, and he confidently slotted the ball into the bottom left corner of the net. Bournemouth were collapsing infront of our eyes and gifted us yet another goal just five minutes later as a poor back pass found Massey who wasted no time in crashing home his second of the night. We were firmly in control and Bournemouth knew it. They didn’t create any real chances and were playing like we have been in the past few weeks. We saw out the rest of the half in extreme comfort, safe in the knowledge that we just needed to avoid defeat in the second leg, at the Woodspring, in order to book our tickets to Wembley.

It was a stunning result and we were giddy afterwards. I tried to keep things calm and remind the lads that the tie wasn’t won, but it was now hard to imagine that we weren’t going to be walking out at Wembley in a few weeks’ time.

Matchday 35 – League Two – Port Vale v Weston-super-Mare

We were brought back to the realities of our league commitments, however, to drive thoughts of Wembley from our minds. We were facing another side in poor form and languishing at the bottom of the table. We usually struggle in this kind of game, but I was a bit more confident than usual as our game against Bournemouth had been such a morale booster.

Port Vale brought us back down to earth with a bang, as we were undone by two quick first half goals. Luke McCullough started things off badly by giving away a free kick on the edge of our area within just three minutes. Jake Cassidy stepped up and curled the ball over the wall and into the back of the net. Not a perfect start at all, but it got worse just ten minutes later when McCullough then fell badly and hurt his knee after jumping for a ball. He had to go off and, in the resulting confusion that was caused by this and the resulting substitution, Cassidy took advantage to slotted home his second.

We were a bit shellshocked but rallied well and began to finally get a foothold in the game. We created a lot but put very little on target (the story of this season) and even fewer in the back of the net. We didn’t even begin to claw back their advantage until midway through the second half when Steven Howarth scuffed his shot past the Vale keeper following some confusion at a corner. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way past their defence a second time and, in the end, we fell limply to defeat.

Yet another dreadful display against sides in and around the bottom of the table. Last season we struggled a bit against the weaker sides but we always found a way to at least get a draw. Our finishing is seriously hurting our season and I was not happy about it.

I was equally frustrated by the injury sustained by Luke McCullough, who it turned out had damaged his knee ligaments and would now likely miss the rest of the season through injury. Just what we needed…

Part of my frustration with my strikers was falling at the feet of Elliot Lee. Whilst both Massey and Howarth had been patchy, they had at least contributed goals to the side on occasions. Lee, however, never threatened to score and had been a dreadful signing. So, when he came to me to ask to leave I had no problems helping him do so. We eventually found a buyer and I was happy to watch him leave to sign for non-league Eastleigh for a fee of £10,000. Not bad, considering we got him for free, but I would rather have not had him on the books at all. Good luck to him, I suspect the Blue Square Premier would be rather more like his level.

Matchday 36 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Plymouth Argyle

So, to end the month we were finally (finally) going to get to face off against Plymouth Argyle after our pitch finally passed an inspection. They had been picking up points a lot recently and were getting good at not losing, having only tasted defeat once in their past seven games, four of which were wins. Nevertheless, they had returned to the bottom of the league, presumably because all of the other sides in the bottom two or three had beaten us in the last week or so. They would be tough, especially given that our strikers had seemingly forgotten how to score in the league…

Finally, finally, Rob Hall scored. And he didn’t just score one; he grabbed himself a hat-trick to help us comfortably beat Plymouth and ease us further away from the relegation zone and closer to the play-offs.

Despite being on a good run, the Pilgrims were awful and didn’t pose much of a challenge at all. We took the lead early as Hall received the ball to his feet in the box, turned smartly and fired into the bottom corner. It was an excellently taken goal and he looked very happy to have finally gotten off the mark in Weston colours. The rest of the half wasn’t particularly interesting as Plymouth showed virtually no attacking threat whilst we reverted to our usual settings as far as finishing is concerned.

The second half, though, really confirmed to me just how good Hall is and how much of an asset he can be when he is playing well. He doubled our lead after 61 minutes, ramming a shot into the top corner from inside the box, before netting a third just nine minutes later to complete his hat-trick and bag us all three points.

Finally a good performance against a weak team; finally someone showed everyone else how to finish properly.

The win saw us jump from 15th to 12th. Somehow we are still just six points outside of the automatic promotion places and only one win away from the play-off zone. This is good as it means we still have a shot of getting something interesting from this season, but considering our patchy form I would doubt very much if we are able to put together enough consistent results to catapult ourselves back up into the promotion picture.

Next month is a mixed bag. We have to play a couple of sides above us, a couple below, plus we have the second leg of our JPT semi-final to play. February will be a big month for us. We may be close to the promotion spots at the moment, but that will not last if we continue to slip up against poor opposition.

Can we now go on an excellent run and put our hats in the ring for promotion? Can we do enough to earn ourselves a spot in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final? You’ll have to come back next time to find out! Cheers!

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